Who Is Fred Ho?
Fred Ho, the Asian American musician, composer, writer, and activist combines music and politics to fight discrimination and redefine American identity. He has developed a “new American multicultural music” which recognizes the diverse cultural contributions to twentieth century American music. His revolutionary compositions challenge the status quo by providing an artistically provocative vision for the future. Ho’s intent in composing music is not only to recognize different forms, but to convey anti-oppression messages that provide an alternate framework upon which American identity is defined.
A commitment to multiculturalism and diversity has not always been an integral part of Ho’s character. His coming of age as an Asian American was marked by feelings of denial, anger, and confusion about his Chinese identity. As a result, Ho has dealt with racial discrimination in different ways throughout his life, first by assimilating, then by confronting it through activism and music. Now a prominent musician, Ho works to raise social consciousness by transforming his experience into positive action.
Fred Wei-han Houn (later Fred Ho) was born in 1957 in Palo Alto, California, and spent the first five years of his life in Michigan and Nebraska as his father searched for a full-time position teaching Political Science. At the age of six, Ho and his family settled permanently in Amherst, Massachusetts. From the time he was a young boy until he reached high school, Ho felt like an outsider among his peers. He was discriminated against at school because of his Chinese background, and classmates were encouraged to exclude him from their play. In order to make sense of the discrimination that he faced, Ho tried hard to be racially effacing by conforming to the same Euro-American norms which had worked to oppress him. He wanted to be liked, accepted and respected. By the time he reached adolescence, the energy that Ho had directed toward assimilation had produced feelings of self-denial and self-hatred.
The junior high and high school years marked a turning point for Ho. He began to redefine his identity as a Chinese American, breaking away from the pattern of assimilation that he had adopted in his childhood. The social revolutions of the sixties, which heightened public consciousness about the civil rights struggle of historically silenced groups, had a strong impact upon him. He explored issues of power and discrimination and raised questions about his identity in the Euro-American culture. At the same time that Ho was experiencing intellectual growth through the exploration of theoretical questions, he grew emotionally and creatively. He changed the way he thought about himself and others and turned anger and pain into action and power. At school Ho enrolled in a “Black Experience” class and was introduced to the work of several African American authors, including Malcolm X. The exposure to anti-oppression ideas changed his life, and at the age of sixteen he converted briefly to the Muslim religion.
Though Ho had begun to play the baritone saxophone at the age of fourteen, he did not follow a path that would purposely lead to a professional career in music. After high school, he attended Harvard University and graduated in 1979 with a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology. While in school, Ho continued to invest his time and energy in political and social activism. He founded the East Coast Asian Student Union in 1978 and the Asian American Resource Workshop in 1979. Music did not receive as much attention as politics during this period, but Ho did not abandon his saxophone entirely. He had not participated in the music program at Harvard because it lacked the diversity that he sought. After graduation he played and composed occasionally while working in construction.
In 1981, Ho left Boston for New York, where he focused on building a professional career in music. From the year of his arrival until 1988, he led the Asian American Arts Ensemble, a group with which he produced two albums. In 1982, Ho formed the Afro Asian Music Ensemble out of a desire to lead and compose for his own group. Although he had played with musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie, Archie Shepp and Gil Evans, he was not one to work as a sideman in someone else’s band. Since that time, Ho has demonstrated incredible talent in composing his own pieces and leading not only the Afro Asian Music Ensemble and the Asian American Arts Ensemble, but the Monkey Orchestra and the Afro Asian Arts Dialogue as well.
Throughout the 1980s and 90s, Ho composed several music theater pieces and released seven albums. In 1995, he co-edited Sounding Off! Music as Subversion/ Resistance/Revolution, the 1996 winner of the American Book Award. His compositions combine free jazz with traditional Chinese folk music, resulting in award-winning, revolutionary music. In addition to gaining recognition for the products of his work, Ho has garnered several prestigious awards which support the process of composing music, including two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, a 1989 and 1994 New York Foundation for the Arts Music Composition Fellowship, and the 1988 Distinguished Artist Lifetime Achievement Award given by the 17th Annual Black Music Conference at the University of Massachusetts.
Fred Ho continues to be an active member of the Asian American community. He is the founder of Guerilla Music Productions, co-founder of AsianImprov Records, and owner and founder of Transformation Art Publisher. He lectures regularly to university audiences and has spoken at numerous conferences on the arts and Asian American affairs. By combining political activism with artistic integrity, Ho is able to pursue his goal of redefining American cultural identity to include not only Euro-American culture and values but those of Asian/Pacific Americans, African Americans, Native Americans and Chicanos as well.
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